Let me start by saying that, for every woman who has ever experienced labor, there is a different story about “what labor is really like.” Every body, every pregnancy, every baby, every situation is different, so of course we will all experience it differently. Clearly, having gone through labor exactly once – albeit for approximately 56 hours – I am hardly an expert. That said, I have had quite a few women who have never given birth before ask me what labor is really like. So here’s my experience.
First off, it is NOTHING like what you see on television. On TV, there is always the sudden “my water broke!” situation or a woman has precisely one contraction (which she can still talk and move around through) and exclaims, “It’s time!” Um, yeah, it does not work that way. Truly. Only about ten percent of the time does a woman’s water break before she gets to the hospital, and of that ten percent and very small number of women experience their water breaking as the very first sign of labor.
With both Zoey and Eleanor, I started experiencing frequent, strong-yet-painless contractions as early as 18-20 weeks pregnant. The contractions were so frequent, in fact, that I ended up on light duty at work because being on my feet would provoke even more. With all those contractions being a regular part of more than half of my pregnancy, I wondered how I would know when labor really started. It wasn’t like contractions would be something new for me.
The day I went into labor with Eleanor, I woke up early and couldn’t go back to sleep. Throughout the morning, which was spent at a birthday party for all the kiddos in our mom’s group about to turn two, I kept having contractions. The other moms commented on the frequency and intensity of my contractions, but I brushed it off. They weren’t painful or really much different than what I had been experiencing for months. I took Zoey home around noon and put her down for a nap. That was when it suddenly hit me: while these contractions didn’t feel any different, there was a difference in that they seemed to be coming at regular intervals. I started to time them and, sure enough, every 8 minutes or so I was contracting.
To make a long story short, we ended up at the hospital and were sent home later that evening because my cervix wasn’t showing any signs of changing. I asked the nurse how I would know when to come back: the contractions were every 2-4 minutes, regular, not stopping. They weren’t painful, but there was definitely a feeling of a lot of pressure – enough so that I frequently had to breathe through them and couldn’t carry on a conversation. I was told to come back when I was bent over the bed with each contraction, unable to talk or think about anything else. Doubtful and confused, I just nodded and went home.
All I can say is, the nurse was right. It isn’t a question of pain really, although there certainly is pain involved. At some point, the contractions became so intense that the only way I could cope with them was by being on my hands and knees and breathing in a deep, rhythmic pattern. It was all entirely instinctual. When each contraction hit, nothing else in the world existed except for the contraction and my breathing.
Even at my most exhausted, when the contractions were the most intense for me, I would say my pain never got above a “six” on a scale of one to ten. To be fair, I have a fairly high pain tolerance. I also got an epidural before going through “transition” and pushing out the baby, so it is possible I avoided the most painful parts of the process.
The best way I have every come up with to describe the intensity and discomfort of contractions is this: imagine you have an enormous, aching spasm in your back. Someone massages it for you. It hurts intensely when they push on that knot, but in a good way, right? The pain level is almost more than you can take at times, but you don’t want them to stop because it feels like it is helping. That is what labor is like. Those contractions are incredibly intense, and can push you to your utmost limits, but at the same time they feel so right, so productive and natural. That was my experience at least.
My best advice for new moms facing labor for the first time is this: don’t fear it. The media and society in this country pummel us with the idea that labor is scary, risky, painful. Allow yourself to believe instead that it can be natural, beautiful, and empowering. Because it really is and really can be.